The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part I June 18, 2017

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!  (This is part of a tree piece I collaborated on at Strawbale Studio in Michigan)

A group of people sharing stories and songs by the fire. A fine pair of leather shoes. A beautiful woven garment. A tale full of twists and mystery. Finely wrought iron doors. An amazing wood carving on a stump. A marble sculpture. A wildly painted mural on a wall. A cob structure with whimsical trees and forms. A song that reaches deep within you when you hear it.  A rousing speech. Each of these, and so many others, represent the natural creative expressions of humanity. Taking up the path of the bard is one of three paths in the druid tradition (along with the work of the Ovate and the Druid). Yet, many people aren’t sure how to take up the path of the bard because they don’t think they are “creative” or “talented” enough.  However, the bardic arts are part of our human heritage and birthright, and each of us has that possibility. I believe it is essential that we have an opportunity to cultivate them and to embrace the flow of awen in our lives. This post, part my longer series on the bardic arts, explores the nature of the bardic arts, how to take them up, and how to become proficient at them. The goal of this two-part post is to answer the two basic questions:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

To explore our two questions, in this week’s post we’ll begin by examining some definitions of the bardic arts.  Then, we’ll explore common challenges people face with taking up the bardic path and the roots of some of these challenges.  Next week, we’ll discuss how, regardless of “talent” or starting point, you can become proficient at a bardic art and offer you tools to get started or continue that process.

 

What are the bardic arts?

For the druid path, the bardic arts, or a wide variety of creative expressions, are central to the practice of druidry.  The ancient bards invoked the “Awen”; the awen is  the inspiration, the muse of inspiration, or the spark of creativity that flows. Likewise, modern druids intone and invoke the Awen in our practices often and draw upon the flow of awen for creative works. I talked more about the awen in last week’s post and more about this centrality of connecting to the creative arts in my recent post on connection as the core philosophy of the druid tradition. 

 

By “bardic arts,” I refer to a wide variety of creative and skilled expressions that can fall into four broad categories:

 

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

 

I recognize that many of these categories overlap, and all are inherently performative in nature and allow a bard to engage in some form of self-expression.  One possibility to add to this list might also include “digital arts” of various kinds (film, 3d design and printing, etc) although I’m sticking here to comments on more traditional bardic arts. A second possibility might be culinary arts or other kinds of creations.

           

Challenging Social Structures and Creative Expression

So now that we have some idea of what the bardic arts are, we can begin to dig into the challenging social structures and cultural inhibitions against creating that prevent more people from taking up the path of the bard. Because it isn’t until we understand the problems we face in cultivating the bardic arts that we can find ways of addressing those issues.

 

Growing Up and the Langauge of Disempowerment

Children are the most natural bards of all. Young children do not have the cultural inhibitions against creating that many adolescents and adults later develop.  In fact, young children instead create constantly: a group of children with crayons and paper will quickly create numerous colorful drawings, sharing them with each other. Another day, children might create complex sandcastles or fingerpaint on the wall or draw pictures in the soil outside.  They are happy to sing, dance, and create anything. No one has to teach these children to be creative; they might need to be taught how to use the markers, but a healthy child will create, often to excess, without hesitation or judgment.  Further, children aren’t judgemental of their creative work: they create becuase it brings them joy, not necessarily, because they are creating masterpieces.

By the time that that bardic-arts loving child goes through mass education, however, his or her willingness to pick up a crayon again is often greatly diminished. By the time that child is a teenager, their creative spirit is often replaced with narratives of disempowerment.  They might now say, “I’m not creative” or, when experiencing another’s bardic expressions say, “I could never do that” or “I’m not talented* like you.” They say, “I could never be a [musician/artist/etc.].”

 

How many of you have heard statements like these or said them yourself?  I have heard hundreds of people over the years say these things. Our words have power,  and the kind of statements above is the language of disempowerment. This kind of language prevents us from taking up the path of the bard, and it stifles any chance of creativity. The more we say these things, the more we reinfoce the idea that we are not creative, not talented, and not capable of creative work.

 

(*The etymology of the term “talent” is also worth exploring here. The original term “talent” is a unit of Roman currency. The “Parable of the Talents” within the Christian tradition tells a story of a master who gives three servants different numbers of coins. Two of the servants invest their coins and gain additional talents. The third servant buries it in the earth to prevent losing it; this servant is punished by his master. The moral here is that if we invest in our talents, we gain.)

 

Cultural Sources of Creative Disempowerment

Playing music from the 1750's

Playing music from the 1750’s

What exactly happens in western culture to turn happy and creative children into disempowered teens and adults? I hold that it has at least six sources of disempowerment, each of which is worth considering to help us begin to remove the cultural blocks on the creative spirit and the flow of Awen.

 

Celebration of the Exceptional. Because western culture celebrates and elevates that which is exceptional, it makes average people believe that the bardic arts are only worth pursuing if they are highly “talented.”  Mass media constantly parades exceptional skill/talent in our screens and in our faces, making any of our own efforts appear less than satisfactory. For example, the culture of celebrity prevalent in Westernized media elevates professional entertainers, craftspeople, and artists. It is their work that we consume and their work fills our homes and our lives, stifling our own. The phenomenon of television shows celebrating exceptional “talent” (The Voice, America’s Got Talent, American Idol, etc.) is a telling example here. Tens of thousands of people come out to compete for a chance to win what is, essentially, a highly publicized talent show. Those who aren’t exceptional are literally mocked on national television, and as the show goes on, in the end one or two are elevated to celebrity status. Their music or other creative talents are consumed by millions across the land.

 

Active and Passive Entertainment. The above example directly leads us to the second cultural challenge: the everyday people are discouraged from actively providing their own entertainment. The proliferation of mass media being broadcast into every home ensures that one is so immersed in the creations of others that one has little time, or desire, to create for themselves. One of the things the modern druid movement does is bring back the Eisteddfod, the bardic circle, and celebrates the telling of stories, singing of songs, playing of music, and encourages each person (regardless of ability) to share, actively taking entertainment back into our own hands.

 

Deferring to the Experts. The culture of celebrity also encourages us to “defer” to the experts—those professional entertainers, artists, musicians, and so on who hold exceptional talent are the only ones who hold power. In the Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry cautions against trusting a “specialist” for everything: we have specialists who are in charge of our health, specialists who are in charge of growing our food, and specialists who are in charge of our entertainment (among many other things). An adult living in western society has, literally, decades of practice being conditioned to defer to experts for his/her basic needs, and unfortunately, the creative arts are no exception.  This is disempowering and doesn’t encourage one to take up the bardic arts.

 

Remote Creative Expressions. A fourth challenge present that the celebrity/expert culture puts creative expression in the hands of distant strangers rather than local people in the community. You don’t personally know the celebrities that are providing your entertainment or arts; they are remote, distanced strangers who aren’t accessible to you in any other way. This reduces the chance for you to learn, to ask questions, and to see that any person can cultivate a bardic art.

 

Belief in Innate Talent. Fifth, we have a powerful and prevailing cultural belief in innate talent. This has two sides. First, there is the belief that only those with innate or extraordinary talents should take up creative expressions (because those are the only people who could make money at doing it, see next challenge below). Schools–and individuals–work to elevate those rare individuals with “gifted” or extraordinary people while serving to disempower those who don’t immediately display such gifts. Secondly, there is the idea that a person must already be good at something in order to pursue it. Often, others seek to disempower you if you aren’t as good or are just learning–and this can be stifling.  There is no room for practice or someone who is just “good enough.” Over a lifetime, these beliefs severely disempower those who may have an interest in learning a new bardic art but aren’t immediately masters when they begin (and really, who is?). This leads to disempowerment and people not even trying a new bardic art becuase they aren’t immediatel good at it.

 

Creative Gifts tied to Material Wealth. A final source of disempowerment comes in the form of the expectation and assumption of financial gain. In a materialistic culture, every serious pursuit is expected to be of some financial benefit. This discourages both those who want to enjoy creative gifts for their own sake in a position of constantly explaining “I don’t sell my work” and those who are interested in taking up a bardic art in a disempowered position.  This also leads to the idea that if your work isn’t good enough to sell, you shouldn’t be doing it.  If it can’t be monitized, it has no real value and isn’t worth your time.  Obviously, this is false, but it is still pervasive.

 

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I did with the help of the flow of Awen

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I finished with the help of the flow of Awen

To demonstrate some of these cultural challenges, I’ll use myself as an example. I have a panflute, which I play occasionally. Although I have a good ear for music, I’m not that good at my panflute because I don’t practice enough. This is because I choose to devote most of my time to my writing and visual arts.  So when I play my panflute,  I usually mess up a bit – it is a challenging instrument to play. I don’t care if I make a few mistakes, and neither do the trees I am playing for. But people do–they expect flawless, expert performances. I have had people tell me, “don’t quit your day job” after hearing me play. My singing is even worse–I have not taken voice lessons nor do I have a very strong voice, but I like to sing anyways.  If I sing or play the flute and others hear me, it is not seen as a positive thing, but rather, I experience a lot of discouragement.

 

On the other hand, I am a highly skilled artist.  This is becuase I grew up in a house with two parents who were professional artists and because I have dedicated myself to my art and practice it at least several times a week for over decade.  If I share my work, I often will hear the “you are so talented, I could never do that” statements.  These statements both disempower the speaker and disregard the thousands of hours that I have put into my artwork to be able to get to the level where I am. I also hear, “you should sell your work” as if commercializing it is the ultimate compliment.  My art is part of my spiritual path and making money from it isn’t the point of it. But the only models we have, culturally, suggest to be successful as a bard is to be *really* good at it and to make a profit.

 

Breaking Away from Cultural Challenges: Local Bardic Communities

Despite the above cultural challenges, a good number of everyday people break out of these narratives and engage in the bardic arts, often developing local communities of bards. You see these endeavors through initiatives such as community theaters, community orchestras, local wood carving guilds, artist associations, local art shows, local singing groups, local craft guilds, and more. These groups not only support those engaged in the bardic arts in further developing their talents but offer places for everyday community members to be exposed to artists who are ordinary people and who are engaged in the creative works. In other words, these local community groups serve as counter-narratives to the above problems in at least four ways:

 

  1. They demonstrate that everyday people (neighbors, friends, family members) can engage in creative expressions
  2. They demonstrate active role in one’s own entertainment/creative expression rather than handing this over to specialists
  3. They accept the idea that being “good” at something is good enough*
  4. And, they demonstrate that bardic arts don’t have to be done only for profit, but simply, for pleasure

 

Here, I point to a scene in John Michael Greer’s Retrotopia, where the main character goes to see a theater performance and comments that the singing and acting were “good” and an enjoyable time was had by all. The point being made here is that entertainment doesn’t need to be done by only the exceptional—being “good enough” still leads to enjoyment.

 

Despite serious cultural challenges, the creative flow of awen hasn’t completely been lost from the common folk! So hopefully at this point, we can see the roots of some of these common cultural challenges and through this illustration, we can begin to break out of the challenges and embrace our creativity. Next week, we turn to a discussion of how to cultivate your creative gifts as a bard and cultivate and join communities of bards. In the meantime, perhaps this week, take some time for whatever bardic pursuit you enjoy (or are thinking about taking up!)

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In Praise and Honor of the Snow: Understanding and Overcoming Cultural Challenges February 2, 2014

In January, this year, we’ve gotten record amounts of snow (somewhere above 50″ since the new year). This is true of much of the midwest and eastern seaboard in the USA.  Snow holds a very convoluted position in modern American society. At least half of us live in areas that receive at a decent amount of snowfall per year, year after year. With the increase of weather events relating to climate change, more and more extreme weather events are occurring, and snowstorms are not the exception. In recent years, it has been my perception that as the extreme weather events are increasing, so is the weeping, gnashing of teeth, and hatred towards the snow.  But it is not the snow to blame, but rather our underlying cultural issues that are exacerbated and intensified by the snow; we have a number of deep-rooted problems in society that are manifested by the appearance of snow. I am breaking these cultural issues into to two categories–issues we, as individuals, can more easily change and things that are more difficult to change but are still serious problems.  After the discussion of these areas, I conclude with some insights and reverence for the snow.

The White Wonderland

The White Wonderland

 

 

Underlying Cultural Problems Manifested by the Snow: Things We Can More Easily Change

The following four areas represent cultural issues, and responses, that I think are fairly easy for us as individuals living within this culture to change.  These changes do take some work, but they are still very much within our own power to change.

 

 

1. Negative framing of snow by national media (Underlying cultural problems = negative news, disconnection from natural cycles).

We have a substantially negative framing of snow by our news and weather media.  For the snowstorms we’ve had the pleasure of receiving in the last month, I saw everything from “Life Threatening Snow” to “Winter Fury Unleashed” to “Ion Bears Down on US” as ways to discuss the snow. These negative discussions take away from the otherwise beautiful, yet powerful, winter scenes and immediately frame it as a negative event that has to be dealt with rather than a natural occurrence. Beautiful scenes of snow aren’t portrayed on our local or national news–no, we hear about the 30-car pile ups and the difficulties people have with the snow.

 

The second thing that I think is going on with negative framing of the snow is that as humans, we are disconnected from the natural cycles.  Snow is an integral part of most climates; trees like the Black Birch and Maple need the cold before their sap can begin to run.  Because of this lack of understanding of the cycles of nature and the negative framing, we don’t take time to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the snow.

 

Of course, with snow being framed in such terms nationally, its no wonder that individuals feel nothing but negativity towards the snow. Facebook feeds, twitter feeds, and other social media, combined with in-person weeping and gnashing of teeth, all frame snow in a negative light. Its a nuisance, its a bother, it causes work, it delays plans.  And that is certainly one way of looking at it–but not the only way!

 

 

 

My response: Positive Framing of Snow.

My response to the negative framing of snow, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, is simple–I don’t participate in the negative framing of snow. Snow is a natural part of the seasonal cycle, and something to be celebrated in the same way that we celebrate a warm summer day. I work hard to revere the snow, to recognize its artistry and beauty, and to help others do the same.  Are there times that a snowstorm messes up some plans I’ve had? Sure.  Does that mean its the snowstorm’s fault?  No.  What it means is that I get to make new plans, to stay home, and to enjoy the winter.  I can celebrate the solitude and quietude that the snow brings; revel in its incredible beauty, and remember the lessons it has to teach.  I also remember that snow is but part of the cycle of the seasons, and that soon enough, spring will return.

Through the Branches

Through the Branches

 

 

 

2. State-of-Fear Reactions in Society (Underlying cultural problems = state of fear hype, fragility of current system). 

One of the big shifts that occurred in America following the September 11th tragedy is that our leadership and mass media work hard to keep people in a constant state of fear.  Everything is something to react to, to be afraid, and to panic about. Why? Its simple–people are easier to control when they are reacting and feeling, rather than approaching something using reason and their minds. This is why Aristotle, when speaking of the three primary ways that persuasion happens, suggested that pathos (or emotional-based appeals) were the most effective, but also the most dangerous.  A reactionary populace is not a thinking populace.   Snow, unfortunately, has become caught up in this state-of-fear mentality.

 

Furthermore, the media has made the move to name winter snowstorms and other large weather events.  This personifies the storm, gives it human qualities and motives, and makes the personified storm’s actions more severe.  Snowstorm “Ion” is somehow much more nasty than “that snowstorm coming tomorrow.”

 

Can snow cause problems and can it be dangerous? Absolutely, especially with the mass stupidity which which people treat snow (more under “transportation” below).  We know snow is coming, its a natural occurrence. If one is carefully prepared, there is no reason to get upset or frightened.  The underlying problem is not that we get a snowstorm, its that people are now so unprepared to have a snowstorm, it causes fear.

 

My Response: Careful Preparation and Building Resiliency

I look forward to the snowy times, but I only do this because I’ve worked to be well prepared for the winter months and to plan ahead.  With a stock of wood to heat my house in the event of a power outage, a good relationship with a neighbor who has a plow, a stock of herbs and tinctures in case I fall ill, adequate winter clothing that I could wear to stay warm for hours outside in the snow, and the potential to call others in case of any difficulty, I’m not so concerned when the snow begins to fall.

Snowy scene of pond

Snowy scene of pond

 

 

 

3. Frantic Supermarket Chaos before Snowstorms (Underlying cultural problems = no food security, complete dependency on corporations for basic needs).

Hype about any given snowstorm is first built up to a frenzied state using the “state of fear” tactics I describe above.  This encourages people to go out and spend more money than the otherwise would on massive amounts of food and other “supplies.”  Supermarket shelves are stripped bare, and people take their stuff back to their houses and hope for the best.  If we recognize that fueling consumptive activity is the primary goal of all media, it becomes no surprise that this is what occurs. However, there is a deeper issue at play, and that issue is food insecurity. 

 

In this region of the world, when winter came, individuals, families, tribes, and communities had substantial stores–they spent the bulk of the spring, summer, and fall, growing, foraging, raising, or otherwise producing enough food to get them through the winter months.  I think about the caches that Buffalo Bird Woman discusses in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, or the extensive pantry and larder that Laura Ingalls Wilder discusses at her family’s homestead.  In The Resilient Gardener, Carol Deppe describes the Hopi’s rule of growing and storing enough corn for two seasons, not one, to ensure survivability in case of crop failure. Having a store of food through the winter time, with access to what one needs, is one definition of “food security.”

 

Right now, most Americans react to the snowstorm in what I’d call a reasonable manner, given their food-insecure circumstances.  Most Americans have only 1 or 2 weeks of available food in their houses at any given time, and literally no skills or ability to produce their own food.  Part of this is that many now live on convenience foods, rather than staples like dried beans, or rice, and there is only so much room in one’s freezer.  So when they rush off to the grocery store, they are reacting due to their food insecure circumstances (which seems ironic, in a country that wastes up to 40% of its food).

 

 

My response: Increasing Food Security.

My solution has been to be more food secure and to work to produce as much of my food as I can, to store my food effectively, and to be prepared for when snowstorms happen.  With 150 lbs of rice; 100 lbs of various beans, nuts, and other dry goods; 300+ jars of sauce, jams, preserves, jellies; and a freezerful of fresh pressed apple cider, meats, and other goodies, I’m not worried when the snowstorms come.  I could get snowed in here for two months or more and still be eating healthily and with variety.  If producing your own food isn’t possible, at least moving toward a pantry/bulk food buying system where one has more than a week of groceries in the house at any given time would help with food security issues.

All white!

All white!

 

 

 

4.  The Work of Snow (underlying cultural problem = sedentary lifestyles). 

When a snowstorm hits, there is, of course, the complaints about shoveling the walks, cleaning off the car, and so forth.  I believe a lot of this is rooted in our culture’s largely sedentary lifestyle, where people aren’t used to a lot of physical labor, and shoveling a foot of snow is certainly physical labor. I realize here that some people have health conditions that prevent them from doing the labor–and to them, I suggest to make friends with a neighbor (this is another underlying cultural challenge–we don’t actually know our neighbors).

 

My response: Snow = Free Exercise.

Since I derive all of my physical activity from either being in nature (hiking, kayaking) or productive work (like double-digging beds, putting in a chicken fence, chopping wood, hoeing the garden, raking leaves, etc.) I am happy when the snow comes down.  Why? It gives me a chance to get out, get some exercise, and move around a bit.  I look forward to shoveling that long pathway to the chicken coop, and throughout the year, I work hard to keep myself in shape so that I can do that work.  I don’t have to pay for expensive gym memberships–I can just shovel snow!

Snowy maple guardian

Snowy maple guardian

 

 

Underlying Cultural Problems Manifested by the Snow: Things We Cannot Easily Change

The last set of cultural problems that are manifested through the snowstorm are not things that we can easily or readily change, but issues that are very much impacting our cultural responses to snow.

 

1. Lost wages & Job issues (Underlying cultural problems = erosion of the middle class; living hand-to-mouth; income disparity). 

A snowstorm,  like the ones we’ve experienced here in Michigan for the last month, means one or two days where no pay is coming in, where a lost paycheck can mean the difference between paying the rent and not paying the rent. This is actually probably the biggest concern for a lot of people, especially those working hourly-wage based jobs or several jobs to make ends meet.  Several days of lost paychecks can hit a family very hard, and again, the easiest culprit to blame is the snowstorm out one’s window.

 

However, I want to point out that issues of personal economic security have nothing to do with the snow itself–it has more to do with the fact that we have so many people working low-wage jobs in poor conditions and struggling to make ends meet.  This whole situation has more to do with the erosion of the middle class and corporate greed than it has to do with a snowstorm.

 

 

My response: Shifting lifestyles, Reducing Consumption and Debt, and Doing Meaningful Work.

This is not an easy, or quick, thing to respond to.  The prevailing cultural and economic winds have made times tougher and tougher for everyone I know, myself included. However, a series of life changes have caused me to deeply reflect on my own relationship to finances, working to track my funds and reduce my consumption, and creating a plan for getting out of debt. One of the books I’m reading now is a book called Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin; in this book, she suggests that we should align our values with meaningful work, examine our true hourly wage, and examine the relationship of time and money (too much to discuss here, but worth reading).

 

 

2. Difficulty in transportation, dangerous conditions (Underlying cultural problems = lack of care for employees, unnecessary travel)

The last issue that snow often raises is the transportation issue. The roads get covered in snow or ice, flights get delayed or cancelled, and travel is, generally, dangerous and frustrating. For some people, they have to travel because of their jobs (see #1 above) and have little choice if they are going to keep their jobs. For others, they are planning on some travel and that travel is delayed.  I’m thankful, at least, that schools have it right–they don’t ask teachers or students to go out in bad weather, and I only wish that the rest of the nation would do the same.

 

 

My response: Shift Plans, Stay in if Possible

I often wonder how much travel is actually necessary during a snowstorm.  I think that people try to treat snow like any other day–driving to go get gas, to the grocery store, to keep those dinner plans, etc.  But we can’t treat snow like another occurrence–its a special time, a time that asks us to slow down, to reflect, to enjoy the quietude of the winter time.

 

People in other centuries holed up for a good snowstorm.  Winter was a time of rest and reflection–you see this in the holidays in the druid tradition, based on the wheel of the year–we rest, we recuperate, we rejuvenate, we heal.  When there is snow, I make a point to change my plans, to stay in, and to accept the gift that nature is giving me–a day off.  Even if its an unplanned day off, its a message from the universe to slow down.

White Pine, the Tree of Peace

White Pine, the Tree of Peace

Winter as a Sacred Time of Healing and Rest

To conclude this post, I’d like to ask us to untangle snow from its cultural baggage, to take some time to enjoy it for what it is, and to embrace the cold and snowy times as times of rest and reflection. Our ancestors did this–they saw winter as a time of rest, a time to enjoy the fruits of their hard labors of the summer months.  Warm in their houses, they enjoyed fruit preserves, family, music, and quietude.  This is part of the natural cycle of the seasons, an important part of rest–for ourselves, for the land, for the trees, for all.

 

We have no such sacred times of rest in current American culture unless we create those times for ourselves.  The snow provides us the gentle nudge to do that–to see the world in wonder, blanked and far from its usual state.  To go out into a white wonderland, full of bliss and joy.  To take time for ourselves away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

 

It took me a long time to write this post–I started when the snows started coming down over a month ago, but it was only today that I finally figured out what I wanted to say.    I hope that this causes you, dear readers, some pause for reflection and perhaps helps you see the snow in a new light.  I feel like I’ve been called to be an ambassador for the snow, speaking the snow’s message of hope and renewal.As part of the message of the snow for me this year, I will be taking a hiatus from the web/social media for the next few weeks.  I hope you go enjoy the snows!  That’s what I plan on doing in the next few weeks :).